Warning! Images and description of cooking with a pig’s head inside! Do not read if of a nervous disposition.
After soaking the bits of head in brawn for 24 hours, they had gone a slightly unappetising grey colour. Still, if I was put off by unappetising stuff we wouldn’t be here, right? And neither would you, dear reader. With that in mind, have a lovely picture of brine-soaked head.
Apart from the head itself, brawn requires a couple of pig’s trotters which the butcher kindly supplied free of charge. Indeed, he actually gave us three, strangely. (On the off chance that anyone local is reading this, the butcher in question is Highfield House farm shop. I haven’t yet subjected them to my full rigorous butcher scrutiny test, but they were extremely accomodating in letting Becky and me look around their operation and listen to our long and arduous specifications for how we wanted our pigs cut up.) The trotters will add gelatin to the mix, which will help set the brawn into a (hopefully) appealing shape. As an aside, it turns out that pigs have hairy toes. Specifically, hair between the toes. Mach 3 had another outing. In retrospect I should perhaps have just blowtorched the hair off.
The head and trotters went back into the pot (again, gigantic pot required) with a couple of quartered onions, a heap of herbs (thyme, parsley, bay and a tiny quantity of marjoram from the herb bed I planted yesterday), and a muslin bag of spices (coriander seed, mixed peppercorns and cloves), and covered with cold water.
I brought the pot up to a very gentle simmer and skimmed off the initial scum that formed on the top (not as bad as I feared it would be). Four hours of simmering later, the meat was ready.
After letting the bits of head and trotter cool, I picked at each piece, separating fat, bone and meat into three bowls. The picture below shows the results. I’d say there was slightly more meat than fat, but only just. Hugh says it’s normal to use all the meat and fat and skin in brawn, but despite our “waste not want not” philosophy we couldn’t bring ourselves to do this; the meat was already pretty fatty, and adding an equal weight of fat just seemed too disgusting to contemplate. Instead, I took one of the larger chunks of fat and added it to the meat, leaving the rest for our hot composter.
I finely chopped the meat. Hugh says to put it in a terrine dish or dishes, but the sheer quantity of meat meant this was not feasible; instead, I put it in a lasagne dish, where it formed a layer maybe 2 inches deep. That’s a lot of brawn! Once that’s done, the brawn needs to be weighed down and fridged. I used a layer of foil and some tins for this purpose.
48 hours later (probably 24 hours would have been enough, but I was on the road all day on Monday), I removed it from the fridge in a nicely set block. I had feared that the absence of any lining in the lasagne dish would mean it would be hard to turn out, but after the use of a rubber spatula to loosen it up it came free easily.
I’m pleased to report that the results are delicious. I had been a little worried that it would be unpalatable or that the process of making it would put me off, but neither turned out to be the case. Brawn tastes, to me, like the filling in a rather high-quality pork pie – salty, meaty and quite herby.
Although I’ve labelled this post and the one before it “thrift” that’s only because for us, the head was in effect free – our pigs were divided between several customers and most others didn’t want the head. To my surprise, a bit of research on the internet suggests that the going rate for a pig’s head is £9, though that will get you a 5kg head and therefore, assuming about a third of that weight is meat, over 1.5kg of meat. So at £6 a kilo arguably it is still thrifty, if not exactly cheap.
Our pigs were Berkshires, who are a bit smaller than most; we got just over a kilo of brawn from one head despite throwing away most of the fat. I’ve divided it into ten roughly equal sized portions and frozen, and look forward to defrosting a bit for picnics in the coming spring months.